My Best Friend Is My Political Enemy

If we can stay connected, maybe you can too.

My Best Friend Is My Political Enemy

Mike and I grew up in the same midwestern town. We hung out in high school, moved to California, lived together during college, and over the years have seen each other through numerous jobs, several girlfriends, and a couple of marriages and divorces. We’ve completed cross-country road trips, ripped through the Sierra Nevadas on motorcycles, and drunk to excess in Mexican bars. But in spite of experiencing so much together, we see the world differently. When it comes to politics, he’s a staunch conservative and I’m a confirmed liberal.

We’re both deeply concerned about how wrongheaded the other is and have spent hundreds of hours arguing against the inexplicable lapses of reason we encounter. How did Mike expand his mind with cranium cracking doses of shrooms only to vote for Bush—twice? How could I grind through dozens of business courses to earn an MBA and still vote for Obama—twice? And don’t even get me started on the 2016 election.

We all have friends and family who actually frighten us with their stubbornly intentional ignorance, and in the world of social media it’s tempting to unfollow them or otherwise shift our attention to more right-minded people. But in doing so, we not only silo ourselves off from other ideas, we slice off a bit of ourselves. Who else, when I complain about these idiot millennials, will remind me of the time I passed out in the front yard and only woke up after being beaned in the morning by the Sacramento Bee delivery boy? Who else can I reminisce with about the time we smuggled five pounds of weed through O’Hare airport? The statute of limitations may have passed on our youthful indiscretions, but without our accomplices around to remind us of these stepping stones on the road to adulthood, we might conveniently overlook them.

So in these deeply partisan times when politics reflects our moral values, how do we stay connected with people on the other side?

For Mike and me, these bonding tactics have developed over the years:

  1. Keep in mind that politicians, pundits, and journalists increase their influence by dividing us. Conflict can be fun, intellectually stimulating, and get the blood boiling, but to what purpose? I and many of my friends on both sides of the aisle refer to ourselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. We want the budget more balanced, taxes lowered, equal rights and justice for everyone, an effective but restrained military, clean air and water, immigration reform, and access to good education and jobs. And when it’s just us sitting around the table talking, we often end up on the same side on how to achieve those goals. But politicians and talking heads have a financial stake in convincing us to define ourselves as members of diametrically opposed political tribes. If we remind ourselves that we have much more in common with each other than with proponents of either political party, we are less likely to let ourselves get remote-controlled by them.
  2. Mind the gap. People who earn their living splitting us into opposing camps need to find wedges they can hammer on. But the gaps presented to us are often only one way to frame an issue, and there may be other frames that lead us to agreement. For example, abortion has been a wedge for decades; determining the point in a pregnancy when a fetus/unborn child is considered to have rights independent of the woman carrying it is as basic an existential question as any of us can ask. But since the answer to this question relies on a belief rather than an agreed-upon objective standard, is there another way to frame the issue? For instance, can we agree to work together to help prevent unwanted pregnancies? It’s fine to argue, but look for ways to bridge gaps, not widen them.
  3. Dial direct and save. Don’t use your friends as political punching bags for the leaders you can’t directly reach. I positively loathe Trump, but it’s unlikely I’ll be able to confront him personally. So it’s tempting to rail against the next best thing: my friends who support him. But is Mike really more to blame for global warming than I am because of his votes, especially considering I travel by jet more than he does? Am I responsible for the cost overruns of the California High-Speed Rail Project because I voted for Proposition 1A back in 2008? Rather than forward articles or cut and paste talking points on Facebook, send your feedback to policymakers. It’s simple these days to email politicians, call them, text them, tweet at them, attend town halls, or even fax them.
  4. Talk personal experiences, not politics. Blabbering on about the latest political outrage enables us to vent, but the listener just gets defensive. Study after study as well as our own life experience shows that arguing facts doesn’t usually change our minds. Although empathy might. There is a larger point here, of course: The more compelling our lives are, the less political bickering we fall into. If much of what my friends and I talk about is someone else’s life, political or otherwise, it’s a sign we need to get off our our asses and make our own lives bigger. I want to hear about Tom’s trip to Indonesia, Renee’s latest “Crackaroni and Cheese” recipe, about how some guy in his early 70s humiliated Jim at pickleball, and how astonishingly well Kevin golfed at the tournament last weekend. Talking about our own lives and how we experience them helps friends understand our political positions better than talking about the media we consume.

Even though I experience the world differently from Mike and many of my other friends, I’m not willing to sacrifice these relationships, even though they are sometimes difficult to keep. Conflict between friends who respect each other can lead to better solutions than we get in our own echo chamber. The next time you’re tempted to ditch a friend due to political differences, remember that true politics stems from our actions more than our words.

Based in Oakland, Scott Mansfield is the author of Strong Waters, a guide to home-brewing and winemaking. He holds workshops and writes beer and wine-related articles in the Bay Area.

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